‘Casablanca’ lives on at re-cre­ation of film’s famed night­club

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Living - By Bob Dro­gin Los An­ge­les Times

CASABLANCA, Mo­rocco — Our reser­va­tion was for 9 p.m., and it was my wife’s birth­day, so we ducked into a swanky ho­tel bar for a cock­tail first. On the wall, a neon sign flick­ered: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

I was get­ting close.

Drinks done, we jumped into a red “pe­tit taxi,” as they’re still called in this for­mer French pro­tec­torate, and made our way down dusty, palm-lined streets to Rick’s Cafe. Two tall guards waved us past heavy wooden doors, and an­other bowed with a flour­ish as he pulled aside a cur­tain, and there it was.

“It’s smaller than I thought,” I whis­pered to my wife. “It’s beau­ti­ful,” she said.

Rick’s Cafe, of course, is the re-cre­ation of some­thing that never was: Rick’s Cafe Amer­i­cain, the smoky, in­trigue-filled night­club built in 1942 on a Warner Bros. sound­stage for “Casablanca,” the time­less Hol­ly­wood film of love, be­trayal and schmaltz in the early days of World War II.

I’d first seen it as a boy. My mother had pulled me out of school for the af­ter­noon, cor­rectly fig­ur­ing I’d learn more from Humphrey Bog­art and In­grid Bergman than from al­ge­bra class. To­day, I know in­fin­itely more about the film than I do about poly­no­mi­als. I’ve seen it count­less times over the years, most re­cently aboard our Air France flight en route to Casablanca — and to Rick’s.

Kathy Kriger, a re­tired U.S. diplo­mat, had opened Rick’s in 2004 af­ter ren­o­vat­ing a di­lap­i­dated Moroc­can home with a huge in­te­rior court­yard, bet­ting it would draw an in­ter­na­tional clien­tele eager to mix nos­tal­gia with fine food and jazz. She died in July, but Rick’s lives on, and for good rea­son. If you’ve ever seen the film — and ev­ery­one should — you’ll en­joy Rick’s.

It’s a pe­riod piece meant to evoke the 1940s. The brassy saxes from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” played on a sound­track as we en­tered. We were quickly led un­der arches and past cedar screens to a pri­vate ta­ble by the wall. A beaded ta­ble lamp flick­ered while sten­ciled brass lanterns and strate­gi­cally placed pot­ted palms sent soft shad­ows danc­ing around the room. It felt in­ti­mate, even a bit glam­orous.

Rashid, our fez-topped waiter, rec­om­mended the roast duck and lamb shank with cous­cous. (All any­one eats in the pic­ture is caviar, but the menu at Rick’s is more egal­i­tar­ian.) By then, the pi­anist had started his set and soon enough be­gan play­ing “As Time Goes By.”

Doo­ley Wil­son mem­o­rably sang it in the film (but did not ac­tu­ally play it; he was a drum­mer), but this was key­boards only. And un­like in the film, the pi­ano was a baby grand, not an up­right. But enough trivia. The room briefly hushed in quiet ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

Af­ter a dry martini, I wan­dered up a wind­ing tiled stair­case near the en­trance. It led to a bal­cony with more ta­bles, on this night filled with what appeared to be Chi­nese tourists. French cou­ples clus­tered in a nearby lounge where “Casablanca” was silently show­ing with sub­ti­tles — ap­par­ently on an end­less loop — on a widescreen.

By the time our food ar­rived, a Cuban chanteuse and a Venezue­lan per­cus­sion­ist had taken over, belt­ing out fado-like torch songs, and the cafe came alive as we sa­vored our meal. More red wine, sweet mint tea and a sump­tu­ous lava cake later, I went in search of Is­sam Chabaa, the pi­ano player and Rick’s long­time man­ager. We quickly re­tired to the mar­ble­topped bar, grab­bing leather stools at one end.

“Peo­ple don’t come for the food,” said Chabaa, 53. “They come for the theme. They come for the dream. It’s a fantasy for some peo­ple. It means so much to them to be here. It still sur­prises me.”

There’s a down­side to run­ning a night­club based, in large part, on a mi­rage. For­get, for a mo­ment, the racism and im­plied sex­ual mis­con­duct in the film. Pa­trons grouse that Chabaa doesn’t wear a white din­ner jacket, that he re­fuses to lead them in singing “La Mar­seil­laise” and even that he isn’t black.

“When it’s a dream, any­thing dif­fer­ent is a prob­lem,” he said. “It puts the bar very high for us.”

So­cial me­dia is full of protests by tourists who were turned away at the door be­cause they showed up in shorts and san­dals. But Chabaa de­fends the dress code as a way to main­tain the am­biance — and the il­lu­sion.

He told me that he’d seen “Casablanca” only once and that he wasn’t that im­pressed. I was stunned. This was heresy.

His fa­vorite films? “Mo­rocco” and “Gar­den of Al­lah,” two Mar­lene Di­et­rich clas­sics from the 1930s. Af­ter a mo­ment’s re­flec­tion, I as­sured Chabaa that if he opened a gin joint for ei­ther of those, I’d try them too.

FRAN­COISE DRO­GIN/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

A waiter pours sweet mint tea af­ter din­ner at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

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